In "The Red Has Lost - So Accept The Grey", Professor Harris argues that the efforts to control the spread of the introduced grey squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) have been totally ineffective and we should adopt a new strategy to conserve the remaining UK populations of the indigenous red squirrel (S. vulgaris).
The displacement of the red squirrel by its North American cousin has been well documented. The situation in my part of the country is fairly typical.
Surveys conducted in the mid 1950s by the Sorby Natural History Society showed that the grey squirrel was gradually spreading into the Sheffield district, but the red squirrel appeared to be holding its ground. A friend recalls seeing red squirrels in the city's parks when he arrived in Sheffield as a student in 1960. Over the next few years the red grew scarcer and scarcer, whilst the grey became widespread and abundant.
Despite occasional speculation that a small population may survive in the forestry plantations near the Sheffield's western boundary, the red squirrel has probably been extinct in the district for many years.
Ten years ago A Review of British Mammals estimated that Great Britain held 160,000 red squirrels (75% of which were in Scotland) and 2,500,000 grey squirrels (80% of which were in England). A little simple arithmetic shows that grey squirrels outnumber red squirrels in England by at least 66 to 1.
Stephen Harris says that there is no hope of restoring the red squirrel to much of its former range. Instead we should concentrate on conserving the populations that thrive on grey-free islands such as Arran and the Isle of Wight. I find myself being persuaded by his argument.
For most people who live in Britain, seeing a red squirrel is now a rare treat. In 2004 Liz and I stayed in a cottage on the edge of Abernethy Forest in the Scottish Highlands. We were delighted to find that red squirrels visited the bird feeder outside our kitchen window.
However, as Stephen Harris points out, it's not that long since red squirrels were regarded as pests - in much the same way that grey squirrels are today. Between 1903 and 1946, the Highland Squirrel Club killed more than 100,000 reds on the grounds that they caused serious damage to forestry trees, an accusation now levelled at the grey.
I think we have to accept that the grey squirrel is here to stay. Although I'm not opposed to culling in principle, the species is now so widespread that complete eradication would be impossible.
One reason for the grey squirrel's success is its ability to exploit food sources provided, wittingly or unwittingly, by humans. Like the fox, the magpie and the brown rat, it has what it takes to survive in the urban environment: intelligence and adaptability.
I'm fascinated by the way in which people anthropomorphise wild animals as "heroes" or "villains". The red squirrel is cute, charismatic, good old Squirrel Nutkin ...but the grey squirrel is vermin, a tree rat, a foreign invader.
At the end of the article by Professor Harris, BBC Wildlife Magazine asks readers to respond to the following questions:
- Do you agree with Stephen Harris's argument?
- Do you think it is worth expending valuable resources trying to protect red squirrels?
- Do you think that the grey squirrel is being demonised to justify a culling campaign?
- If you had £1 million to spend on mammal conservation in Britain, how would you spend it?
It will be interesting to read the responses. I suspect the article will stir up some strong feelings!